Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1786) by William Beckford

"Eastern" influences in 18th century popular culture influenced the literary output of that era, and embedded a strand of otherness in the emerging tradition of the ovel.
Book Review
Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1786)
by William Beckford

   My initial take on Vathek, published back in 2010, wasn't even a take at all, just a block paragraph of the text with no added images or commentary

Carathis, Morakanabad, and two or three old vizirs, whose wisdom had hitherto withstood the attraction, wishing to prevent Vathek from exposing himself in the presence of his subjects, fell down in his way to impede the pursuit: but he, regardless of their obstruction, leaped over their heads, and went on as before. They then ordered the Muezins to call the people to prayers ; both for the sake of getting them out of the way, and of endeavoring, by their petitions, to avert the calamity: but neither of these expedients was a whit more successful. The sight of this fatal ball was alone sufficient to draw after it every beholder. The Muezins themselves, though they saw it but at a distance, hastened down from their minarets, and mixed with the crowd ; which continued to increase in so surprising a manner that scarce an inhabitant was left in Samarah except the aged; the sick, confined to their beds ; the infants at the breast, whose nurses could run more nimbly without them. Even Carathis, Morakanabad, and the rest, were all become of the party. The shrill screams of the females, who had broken from their apartments, and were unable to extricate themselves from the pressure of the crowd, together with those of the eunuchs jostling after them, and terrified lest their charge should escape from their sight; the execrations of husbands, urging forward and menacing each other ; kicks given and received ; stumblings and overthrows at every step ; in a word, the confusion that universally prevailed rendered Samarah like a city taken by storm, and devoted to absolute plunder. At last, the cursed Indian, who still preserved his rotundity of figure, after passing through all the streets and public places, and leaving them empty, rolled onwards to the plain of Catoul, and entered the valley at the foot of the mountain of the four fountains.

   The longer I continue the 1001 Books project, the more convinced I become that the most interesting literary period is 18th century English literature, the place and time of the birth of the modern novel.   Using the term "birth" is a hard opinion that the novel did not exist as an art form before the 18th century, and that after the 18th century, all novels would be created in the image of the 18th century English novel.   It also means that examining the surrounding culture (English popular and literary culture in the 18th century) is more worthwhile than examining the surrounding culture of the 19th and 20th century novel, because the novel was created in the 18th century.

  Vathek: An Arabian Tale is a typically eccentric non-novel of the 18th century that is a good illustration of one important strand of 18th century popular culture: The translation into English, for the first time, of A Thousand  Nights and a Night, early in the 18th century.  When Vathek: An Arabian Tale was published for the first time in 1786, the early elements for modern literary culture were in place:  A network of reviewers located in different markets, a distribution network for new works and most importantly, an Audience.   This Audience was well familiar with Arabian Tales by 1786, both as a work and a cultural category synonymous with the Middle East.

  Vathek can be judged the best of a whole category of 18th century novel-narratives directly influenced by the Aesthetic of Arabian Nights, but ditches the format of  fabelism for the more restrictive constraints of the novel. This "Arabian nights" strand of 18th century popular culture of which Vathek is a prime example, exists alongside the separate but related Aesthetic of Gothic, which also produced several notable 18th century early novels.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

July's People (1981) by Nadine Gordimer

Image result for nadine gordimer young
A young Nadine Gordimer

Book Review
July's People (1981)
 by Nadine Gordimer

     I'm still a little bit shocked that Nadine Gordimer's 1974 Booker Prize winning novel, The Conservationist, didn't make the cut.  Especially when you consider the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded in 1991, providing the crest of a career that lasted until 2012 (she died in 2014.)  A third, Booker Prize winning Gordimer novel in the first edition of the 1001 Books list?  No.  But eight Coeteze novel's is totally, totally, cool.

  July's People is a real winner- an alternate history where South Africa collapses into a racial civil war in the late 1970's.  Her rich imagining I think inaugurates the idea of South Africa in a post-apocalyptic milieu.  It is a vein of culture that has had some success at the widest general audience level in the United States, witness the rise of South African film maker Neil Blomkamp in movies like District 9.

  Like many other books that are set in a post apocalyptic/alternate future, the chaos around serves to focus the story on a few characters, as people become isolated from one other after the collapse of society.  The tension between July, an African house servant for a wealthy (and liberal) white couple with children, as he rescues them from the unrest by taking him to his native village.  Despite the possibility of violence in every page, July's People ends up with a slow pulse rate, nothing erupts into madness, and in that regard, I was a little disappointed.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Names (1982) by Don DeLillo

Photo of the Vintage Paperback edition of The Names, by author Don DeLillo.  DeLillo's early books were republished after the smash success of Underworld.
Book Review
The Names (1982)
 by Don DeLillo

    Don DeLillo is another over-represented author from the first edition of the 1001 Books list: six books, three of which were dropped in 2008, including The Names, his seventh novel.  Any time you make a list that extends backwards in time, the list makers will over-represent the importance of recent events vs. older events.  It's a bias which favors the present over the past.   Essentially 30% of the 1001 Books list is novels written between 1980 and 2006, a twenty six years period in a date range between 1700 and 2006.  So 8% of the timeline occupies a third of the number of titles in the 1001 Books list.    For most of that more recent time period, critics and authors were actively debating whether the novel, as an art form, was "dead."

   Criticisms of the 1001 Books 2006 list aside, I do enjoy Don DeLillo.  I read Underworld in hard cover, and I made some feints towards his back catalog- I remember an unread copy of Mao II haunting my apartment during law school.  The DeLillo of The Names is recognizable as the same DeLillo of Underworld, a man obsessed with the intersection of the 20th century white people relationship novel and the newer concerns of authors like Bellow and Pynchon, authority and control, and the way that influences those same relationships.

  In The Names, the setting is Athens at the turn of the decade from the 1970's and 1980's.  Jim is a freelance writer who works for corporations, writing annual reports and promotional materials.   His soon-be-divorced wife, Kathryn, is nearby on a Cycladic isle, volunteering her time with a moribund archaeological dig while she minds their 9 year old son, a precocious fellow whose main occupation in The Names is the writing of a "non-fiction novel."

   Jim take a new job with a shadowy outfit that specializes in "risk management" on behalf of nameless "large corporations" in the Near East.  Jim's job is to liaise with the local operatives, and obtain his own confidential information from his friends in the Athenic expatriate community.  The quotes used above hint that all is not what it seems with his new gig, but he spends little of the book on that topic, instead becoming obsessed with what may be a series of "alphabet inspired" cult murders taking place near various sites in the Near East.  Like many contemporary novels that dwell in a Pychonian air of mystery, the ending is never as significant as the writing would seem to demand.   Ultimately, the conspiracies and unseen machinations of the late 20th century novel function as a visible mirror to the unresolved tensions of the characters. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Comfort of Strangers (1981) by Ian McEwan

Image result for christopher walken in the comfort of strangers
Christopher Walken plays the mysterious stranger in the movie version of The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan.  The film was directed by Paul Schrader , 
Book Review
The Comfort of Strangers (1981)
 by Ian McEwan

  Ian McEwan lost an astonishing five titles (of eight) that were deemed worthy of inclusion in the 1st edition of the 1001 Books list in the 2008 revision.   This decision tells you all you need to know about the flaws of the first list: An over-representation of late 20th century authors who achieved a measure of popular and critical success as judged by editors in the very early 21st century.  Ian McEwan and J.M Coetzee allegedly represent 2% of the books one needs to read before one dies, according to the first edition of this list.  That is insanity.  You can't tell me that during 2000 plus years of literature, EIGHT Ian McEwan novels make the list and The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno and The Canterbury Tales are all found wanting.

  Perhaps the justification is that a large majority of readers are likely to have read books like The Odyssey, and therefore they don't need to be included, but how many people who bought the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die book had read either Atonement or Amsterdam, McEwan's huge critically acclaimed, prize winning, spectacular novels?  I would bet that is over 50% of the potential  audience for the 1001 Books list.

  Which is not to say that The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan's second novel, isn't worth a read.  This novel, along with his first, earned him the nickname "Ian Macabre" and based on this novel and the Cement Garden it's not hard to see an alternate universe where McEwan turned into something like an English version of Stephen King.    The Comfort of Strangers follows a middle-aged English couple on holiday in a nameless city.  They come into contact with a strange local couple and what happens next... will shock you.  Suffice it to say that Christopher Walken plays the husband of the shadowy pair the English couple encounter in the movie version.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Life A User's Manual (1978) by George Perec

Image result for georges perec
Life A User's Manual was the last novel published by Georges Perec, he died of lung cancer aged, 45, in 1979.
Book Review
Life A User's Manual (1978)
 by Georges Perec

  Life A User's Manual was French author Georges Perec's last novel, and it is also considered his best.    Checking in at 500 pages, with an additional 100 pages of appendices, Perec manages to embrace both his life long obsession with writing under a system of constraints (a characteristic of the Oulipo movement, of which Perec was a life-long affiliate.)  Unlike some of his other novels, the scheme does not eclipse the narrative, making Life A User's Manual enjoyable to read.

  The idea behind Life A User's Manual is to completely describe the lives (and things) of an entire apartment building of Parisians.  It is the novelistic equivalent of removing the front of a children's dollhouse and making up a story for each of the inhabitants and then describing all of the things inside the dollhouse.  According to Wikipedia, this approach was something of a life long obsession with Perec.   All of the rooms of each of the apartments is described in turn at a single point in time, moments after the death of the owner of the building, Bartlebooth.

  Bartlebooth is a wealthy Englishman who has spent his entire life in a single project.  First, he spends 10 years learning to paint watercolors.  Then he travels the world, painting one watercolor almost every week and then sending them back to Paris, where they are turned into 750 piece jigsaw puzzles by Gaspard Winckler (another resident of the described apartment building.)  Bartlebooth returns from his travels and then spends the rest of his life reassembling the puzzles, after which he returns the finished puzzle to the place where it was painted and has it chemically washed, the idea being that his entire life's work will be obliterated.

   Interspersed between episodes of this main narrative, necessarily (because of the restrictions of the approach) told as flashbacks, are dozens of interlinking tales about the lives of the people who have lived in the apartment building at various times.   These tales are voluminous and as entertaining as the central narrative concerning Bartlebooth.  Perec helpfully provides an index of these tales in the back of the book, with the numbers referring to chapter.

  It is tempting to describe Life A User's Manual as an early post-modernist masterpiece, but Perec is more like a modernist taking realist principles of description to an extreme and then cloaking it in his system of restraints.  Perec's fondest for lists of physical things is nowhere abated in Life A User's Manual.   What is different is the introduction of compelling narrative- both the central story about Bartlebooth and his puzzle paintings and dozens of the surrounding tales, which show an understanding of the appeal of genre fiction and genuine humor- rare in a European novel published between the end of World War II and today.

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